Peter Singer, everyone's favourite utilitarian philosopher [prev] was on RTE TED NPR on Saturday where the TED Radio Hour (originally broadcast in June) was reflecting on ethical issues thrown up by Coronarama. He was laying out the stall for Effective Altruism. Altruism is where you take one for the team and most of us think that is worthy and deserving of respeck. Like when teenager Callum Keane recently plunged into the River Boyne to save two smaller kids who were in trouble. Hats off our Callum! And he can join our club of anti-drowners.
That anecdote is right on the money for Peter Singer, whose experimental ethics I wrote about in 2015: "Singer is fond of pointing out that we would happily ruin a $700 suit wading into a muddy pond to save a drowning child but won't shell out $7 to immunize one on the other side of the Third World". I think the phrase was invented by William MacAskill in his book title Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference. It's hard to see us rescue-from-drowning people as doing better . . . although there are plenty of cases where they contribute to the problem by being out of their metaphorical and actual depth and needing rescue in their turn. In the ruined suit story, Singer is starting a dialogue where lives are given a monetary value to make it easier to compare different actions and inactions. This is where my correspondent B starts to get hopping mad because, for her, it is invidious to say we don't have enough resources to save everyone. And Coronarama has thrown that into focus because a whole raft of things, previously deemed to be impossible (like Universal Basic Income UBI has now appeared as Pandemic Unemployment Payment PUP) are now possible.
Peter Singer gives a couple of neat comparators:
- Guide dogs for the blind? [Only symmetrical blondes need apply] That's a great thing to do but it costs $40,000 to get a fully trained guide-dog into the hands of its new owner (and given the lifespan of dogs, that's a 10 year contract). otosotw [on the other side of the world] it costs $20-$50 to cure one poor black person of blindness from trachoma. And there are more than enough cases to spend the entire $40K doing good out there
- See also River Blindness?
- Highway departments in the US have a threshold for fixing dangerous stretches of road = accident black spots. If the works cost more that $9 million they won't be authorised unless the quants estimate that more than one life would be saved over the lifetime of the fix (no highway lasts forever). But that's a lot of money to save one life. otosotw, you can save the lives of a lot of small black people by rolling out a bed-net scheme to prevent malaria. It's only $2K for every life saved there.
- See also Janet Hemingway